Guest Post by Denise May Levenick, The Family Curator
Before the digital photo book there was the Real Photo Album. You’re holding an “antique” if you inherited an old photo album with soft black paper and a hand-tied string binding. The prints might have been artfully arranged and placed on the page with paper photo corners, rubber cement, or old-fashioned school paste, or they may have been haphazardly stuck to random paper with cellophane tape. However it was assembled, your family photo album is fast becoming a rare family heirloom and well worth preserving for future generations.
Old photo albums were designed to accommodate the popular photo prints of the time: you’ll find large Victorian parlour albums for 19th century cabinet cards and smaller horizontal snapshot albums for 20th century black-and-white prints. Early albums often used a vertical format that neatly accommodated a single vertical cabinet card to the page, or a selection of multiple smaller cards . Later snapshot albums were often designed to showcase either vertical or horizontal prints or multiple prints per horizontal (or landscape) page.
Heavy card-mounted photographs such as cabinet cards or carte de visite photographs required sturdy album pages and a corresponding binding and cover. Beautiful ornate albums would have been a treasured keepsake and displayed with pride in a place of honor.
The popularity of consumer photography in the 20th century changed album design as well as photography. Snapshots could be mounted on a variety of papers, leading to an entire industry of simple inexpensive photo albums. Many of these albums feature black construction-paper type pages bound together in a cardboard or leatherette cover with a hand-tied twisted cord.
First Aid for Old Photo Albums
The paper, cover, and other materials used in these albums is often fragile or deteriorating, but you can help prolong the life of your album with a few simple, inexpensive steps.
1. Handle With Care
It’s not surprising that improper handling is one of the greatest hazards to any heirloom. Be kind to your album:
• work on a clean, sturdy surface
• wash your hands or wear gloves to protect the paper and photos from oils in your skin
• use both hands to support the book when moving or storing
Family photo albums are especially valuable because they can tell a story in the arrangement of the photos, as well as from the photo itself. Take time to photograph or scan each page of your album. Oversize album pages may be best digitized with a camera to minimize handling. Use a tripod and remote shutter release with your digital camera, or a document camera with a laptop computer. I like the HoverCam Solo 8 Document Camera to capture full-page TIFF format images of large album pages; view comparisons of scans vs. HoverCam images in my review of this device.
Professional archivists recommend that photo albums only be dismantled as a last resort for preservation. Loose photographs can be placed in polyester photo sleeves and left in place in the album. Store albums flat in an acid-free, lignin-free archival box to protect from dust and light. Use acid-free interleaving tissue sparingly, being careful not to strain the binding by overstuffing the album. Find more tips at the National Archives website.
If you’re tempted to pry photos from album pages to check for identifying comments on the reverse side, you should know that you risk permanently damaging the photo or album page. Preserve the historic contents of the page by capturing a good digital image first, before attempting any photo removal.
Store your boxed album on a flat shelf in a cool, dark location with relatively consistent temperature and humidity. An interior closet in your home is a good place, but avoid the garage, attic, or basement.
Do more than just scan and preserve your family photo book. Share a one-of-a-kind photo album with your family by creating a faithful reproduction copy using an online photo service like Shutterfly, Snapfish or MyCanvas. I’ve had good success with small-size books, like the “Desert Maneuvres 1942” photo album my father-in-law created while stationed in the Mojave Desert. You’ll need sharp print-quality scanned images of each page for your book. I recommend scanning at a resolution of 600 dpi in full color for black and white as well as color album pages. This will give you more flexibility in final output size of the album. Find complete step-by-step instructions in the project section of my book How to Archive Family Photos and examples of reproduction books at my website http://www.TheFamilyCurator.com/heirloom-books.
About the Author
Denise May Levenick is a national speaker and author with a passion for preserving family keepsakes of all kinds. Denise inherited her first family archive from her grandmother in 2000 and is now the caretaker and curator of several family collections. She is the author of How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally, with 25 Easy Keepsake Projects (FamilyTree Books, 2015) and How to Archive Family Keepsakes. Follow Denise and learn more about preserving and sharing family heirlooms at her blog, http://www.theFamilyCurator.com